Trigger warning: this article mentions suicide
With Options MD, co-founders Morgan Hewett and Kyle Pierce intend to revolutionize mental health services, specifically for those who experience severe and treatment-resistant depression—which affects an estimated 18 million Americans. Blockades have been plentiful, but Pierce’s specific professional path and personal experience continue to inform his every move. Pierce, who began as a healthcare attorney, now champions the “consumerization of healthcare,” which he defines as putting the individual in the front seat. In health tech, entrepreneurs sometimes to forget that they’re dealing with real people, but with Options MD, Pierce is advancing medical literacy to empower clients.
Pierce didn’t expect to create a mental health technology company. “When we are young, we use words like ‘entrepreneur’ and it doesn’t mean anything. You might think at some point in your life you are going to leave what you’re doing and become an entrepreneur—but in the meantime you might make choices that are safer and tend to make sense for where you are. For me, that was becoming an attorney.” In law school, Pierce already had reservations about his professional path.
“After working in that space for a long time, it became apparent that I had no other choice but to do something that meant more to me,” he continues. “One of my closest friends from high school through college, she was sexually assaulted on campus. Over the course of the next few months, she was diagnosed with severe depression. She tried and failed with a few treatments. The system let her down and she died by suicide. That was a wake-up call moment for me, realizing that we might not be aware of how much the ones we love most are struggling.”
“At that same time,” he continues, “the brother of my best friend had been going through very severe depression. He tried eight different medicines and their family went through hundreds of thousands of dollars for treatment. He attempted suicide and survived. He’s now in a better place. Reflecting on this experience, I realized it shouldn’t be one or the other: some survive and some don’t. This was what led me here.”
He took this motivation and through research and meticulous hiring transformed it into a startup. “I think it began by just having a vision,” Pierce says. “I’m a lawyer. I know healthcare and the law. All I had to do, in my own mind, was figure out what I wanted and find people to talk with about how the pieces actually fit together.” That vision was for people suffering from severe and treatment-resistant depression, which means they have tried more than two different medicines and not improved. “Getting treated should not look like 10 years of failure, it should use technology and the latest research to figure out what could be the proper path.” Pierce sought to eliminate the trial and error that often deters people, and help individuals understand the various factors woven into depression.
Option MD utilizes a proprietary software to deep dive into who their customer is and what drives them; then it uses this information to develop a path forward. “It provides you with a shortlist to educate you as the patient,” Pierce explains. “Based on that, we have specialists in-house to get you on the proper path. It might be a mix of pharmaceuticals and Eastern medicine, or new and cutting-edge treatments like ketamine and brain stimulation. It’s about longterm care.”
“When we think about what we are doing as a company, it’s trying to create a cultural shift,” Pierce answers when asked if he’s founded a tech brand or a health organization. “We consider ourselves medical iconoclasts. We are bringing things to the forefront that haven’t been thought about yet. We are trying to change the culture around the way we look at people who struggle with severe mental illness and emphasize that there’s hope to be had.”
Pierce himself (an inaugural Gaingels 100 honoree, a group of inspiring figures selected by Gaingels, an LGBTQIA+ venture capital group that’s extending support to others in the queer community) has a unique perspective that’s equipped his approach and business acumen. “My co-founder is a Black woman. I’m a Black Latinx gay man,” he tells us. “It requires a certain confidence to understand that even with all the progress that’s happened in recent years, we’re still novel. But regardless of whoever is on the other side of the phone, we have to be ourselves and present who we are. That’s always worked best. We’ve failed when we’ve tried to give what we think others want. When people see authenticity, it’s often met with acceptance.”
In addition to the technology side, Pierce and Hewett have paid close attention to design. “The branding of healthcare companies can be bland and boring. They don’t have to be blue and white and basic. We were inspired by the beauty of makeup brand websites and what they illicit from a person, which is a desire to be there. If you do not want to be on a site, why would you ever stay there long enough to address your health?”
Everything will fall into place as long as we stay true to our purpose for being and create outcomes for people
“When we started this company, we pictured ourselves only being a software,” Pierce continues. “We realized that we were doing a disservice to our patients. They would come to us, build that trust and then have nowhere to finish that experience. We were putting them with partners of ours. So, our vision changed. Now, we are end-to-end providers. Everything will fall into place as long as we stay true to our purpose for being and create outcomes for people.” He dreams of supporting one million lives.
The aforementioned Gaingels lent early support to Option MD. “Having entities like Gaingels come out to make it their mission to support us has been a game-changer,” Pierce says. “We met [managing director] Lorenzo Thione very early on and he saw what we were doing and who we were as founders. They have been the best partner for us. To have created this network of people who have gone through the same struggles, who think in a similar way or have a similar perspective. It really is refreshing, especially after being in rooms where you’re often the token.” Pierce is grateful for the support, and believes that Gaingels empower. “The fact that my co-founder and I are one of only 300 minorities this year to raise over $1 million is ridiculous. The existence of Gaingels means we have the power to not always fall into a statistic,” he says.
Right now, Option MD has amassed a waitlist of 5,000 people, but there are other options in their ecosystem. “We have the largest FB community for treatment-resistant depression,” Pierce says, “and if you’re on our waitlist, we are always handing out new information.” With mental health, it starts with being informed.
Images courtesy of Options MD